Whilst many topics dominated the food and beverage industry in 2018, perhaps none more so than something that actually happened in Australia but spilled slightly over the Tasman to New Zealand. The Australian strawberry contamination crisis has been a bleak but educating firsthand look into what can go completely wrong from the seemingly unexplainable actions of a solitary peeved employee, who starts a landslide of copycat contamination and brings a whole industry over the ditch not only to its knees but to the depths of despair.
It also illustrates just how vulnerable food growers and manufacturers are to acts designed to spread fear and anxiety amongst consumers quickly and catastrophically…and just how close everyone in this industry is to being completely shut down by the actions of others. To me, there was nothing more chilling than the words of British food protection policy analyst Professor Chris Elliot, who investigated the horrific 2013 horse meat scare in the UK. “I actually call that terrorism,” he says about the strawberry crisis. “One or more individuals have set out to scare people, to terrorise people. There isn’t the level of checking and inspections that should be going on that will safeguard your food industry and safeguard all Australian consumers.” You can bet your bottom dollar that he’d say similar comments about our systems as well, so is it time we really took food safety and authenticity to the next level?
Needles discovered inside a capsicum in Tauranga and in strawberries sold in Geraldine in late November show us the threat of copycats is still tangible, despite Ministry for Primary Industries warning not to overreact over “isolated incidents.” Food regulation director Paul Dansted says growers are scrutinising their supply chains but trying to get their product ready for market at the same time. “Obviously they want to put the consumer first, but it’s a busy time for them,” he said in an interview. Is that view enough in an ever-increasing demand for safe and authentic food? You only have to look at the agony Fonterra has gone through in its two major crises over the past decade or so to see how even the largest amongst us can be decimated by public reaction to bad news. Does the fact that we’re ‘busy’ excuse us from operating only the most stringent of safety systems?
There were more than 60 food recalls in 2018 in New Zealand involving items such as brownies, mayonnaise, milk, hash browns, ginger beer, mince, tuna, berries and popcorn. Some of the manufacturers involved were big names – Hubbards, New World, Beehive, Pam’s, Hersheys and Pak n Save, for example. Many of them were minor and precautionary, but should we congratulate ourselves on ‘only’ having one or so recalls a week in a country of our size? As a 50-year-old Queensland woman faces court after being accused of inserting the first needles into Australian strawberries, the latest New Zealand-based incidents must be sending a chill down the spines of New Zealand growers.